To Russia with love:
A Rag Blog interview with Steven Halliwell
What Russia shows us is that there’s no easy fix. Getting to a common global discussion is the biggest challenge of the 21st century.
By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / June 1, 2012
Steven Halliwell might be our ambassador to Russia — had there been a revolution in the U.S.A. in the 1960s.
A member of SDS, and a protester arrested at Columbia in the spring of 1968, Halliwell has long been an outlier. In his SDS days, while most of his friends and comrades were gazing at China, Cuba, and Vietnam, Halliwell learned Russian and turned his eyes on Russian history, the Soviet Union, and the Kremlin.
Revolutions — Russian and American — have occupied his thoughts ever since 1963, when he traveled to the U.S.S.R, as part of the first student exchange program between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that helped, albeit in a small way, to end the Cold War.
The names have changed, of course. It’s not the U.S.S.R. or Leningrad anymore. Still, over the course of the past 50 years, Halliwell has gone back to the same familiar and yet not so familiar places dozens of times as a student, tourist, and entrepreneur.
Few Americans in or out of academia and in or out of the diplomatic service know Russia as well as he does, and few are as emotionally and intellectually connected as he is to the land of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, perestroika, Putin, and the new generation that’s demanding human and individual rights.
Born in New Jersey in 1943, Halliwell attended Wesleyan and Columbia, taught college in Vermont, and worked at the United Nations when Andrew Young was President Jimmy Carter’s UN Ambassador. In 1985, he joined Citibank and helped to open the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to American enterprise.
In 1994, he left Citibank to become the Chief Financial Officer of a U.S. Government-backed investment fund for Russia. From 1997 to 2010, he ran his own investment firm, River Capital International.
With his wife, Anne, he lives outside New York, not far from his children and grandchildren. I’ve known the Halliwells since the 1960s, and, while they’ve moved on from their days in SDS, they’re as much a part of SDS history as the SDS members, such as Mike Spiegel, Bob Pardun, and Carl Davidson, who served with Steve on SDS’s National Interim Committee in 1967-1968.
On the cusp of 70, he might be too old to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Moreover, the current U.S. Ambassador, Michael McFaul, is a friend. Behind the scenes, and at meetings, as well as over the Internet, he provides a living link between New York and Moscow, Americans and Russians, and between the land of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and the land of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman.
Jonah Raskin: For decades, I’ve been listening to you tell memorable stories about Russia. What really sticks in your mind?
Steven Halliwell: Some moments are fun, others are sad. Lots of people died in the 1990s, including a banker who was a friend. The head of a company I knew was shot leaving his apartment and his seven-year-old daughter was killed. Early on, I took Russians through a Citibank trading floor — a real market in action — and inevitably they’d say, “it’s too noisy for anyone to work!”
You were in SDS and part of the New Left. How did that experience help you to understand Soviet communism?
Complete disconnect. Communism was a way to force industrialization and the modernization of agriculture. The New Left was about post-industrial society, and how to manage the incredible surplus created by technology in a democratic order. I found U.S.A. “Communists” – members of the Communist Party and Progressive Labor – to be troglodytes.
How did your New Left experience blind you to Russia?
Despite my training in Russian history in the 1960s, I thought that perestroika could lead to a new democratic political order and a market economy. Russians were more practically minded. They focused on surviving the collapse of the Soviet system and getting goodies — TV’s, laptops, pretty clothes, makeup, and credit cards — from what they call the “civilized” world.
In 1968 and 1969, when activists and protestors thought of Russia they thought about the Russian Revolution, Lenin, and the Winter Palace. Now, if they think about Russia it’s probably about corruption, vast fortunes, and alcoholism. What’s the real Russia?
Alcohol was always an issue, and Russia has always been corrupt, including during the Soviet period. If a Politburo member needed surgery in London, they’d have an Aeroflot jet ready in hours. Same old same old.
As a student of history in the 1960s what drew you to the history of Russia and the Soviet Union?
Growing up in a WASP family in the 1950’s, there was something liberating about Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the big questions they posed in their writing. At the same time, Russia was the Enemy in the Cold War. I found the tension fascinating and started to learn Russian at 14.
It must be difficult to obtain accurate information these days from Russians about their own society because it’s closed in many ways. How do you do it?
I could tell you… but then I would have to kill you. But seriously, the blogosphere in Russia is very active. Of course, you never use Putin’s name in a phone or Skype call because that’s what the monitors are listening for.
I’ve heard you talk about the “backwardness” of Russian society. What do you have in mind?
Russia is so backward it might be forward. Russia, because of its geographical location, has been working for hundreds of years on how to reconcile Confucian, Greco-Roman, Islamic, and Judeo-Christian traditions. What Russia shows us is that there’s no easy fix. Getting to a common global discussion is the biggest challenge of the 21st century.
How would you describe the Obama administration’s policy vis-à-vis Russia?
Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia and a friend, is smart, pragmatic, and youthful. He and Hillary Clinton have the right mix of pressure and conciliation. The missile shield in Eastern Europe is the most volatile and hardest issue to address.
Is the ruling class of Russia essentially like the American ruling class?
I don’t believe there is an American “ruling class.” Russia’s current rulers are heavily skewed toward ex-KGB people who only know how to take value, not add it. There’s a heavy criminal element at the top.
What does recent Russian experience tell you about democracy as a political system?
The most common slogan in the recent Russian demonstrations was “We are not cattle” — an indication of the growing sense of individual rights. Russia has no history of incremental reform, which will make getting to democracy very difficult.
What do you love most about Russia and Russians?
Anne and I have met many beautiful, talented, dedicated people. There’s a creative intensity that goes hand-in-hand with hard-nosed survival in a dysfunctional world.
What do you most detest about Russians?
“Detest” is the wrong word. A young Mexican Sovietologist wrote an insightful article entitled “Russia as a Borderline Personality.” The damage done by so many years of terror, corruption, absolutism, and murder is still very pervasive.
Did the fall of the Soviet Union influence the lives of ordinary Russians?
It’s given the urban younger generation a chance to see how the rest of the world looks. Forty percent of 18 to 24 year olds say they’d like to emigrate. For poorer rural and industrial working people, the loss of the old subsidies (which were unsustainable) has been a nightmare. Essentially, power based on political standing has been traded for power based on money.
Do you see parallels between American and Russian radicals?
The history of the Russian Revolution, which I was studying at Columbia during the heyday of SDS, showed me that a student movement that idealized the downtrodden (in the 1860’s) could turn to underground violence (in the 1880’s). The same kind of cult-like idiocy in the U.S. destroyed a broad-based movement.
Is it possible for western investment in Russia to benefit Russian society as a whole and not simply a small elite?
There has already been a huge increase in the standard of living in Russian cities, thanks in large part to Western investment. The Russian elite has benefited, not from Western investment, but from stealing export dollars. Russia exports seven million barrels of crude oil every day. At $100 per barrel, that’s $700 million dollars a day of hard currency. There are a handful of decent Russians managing profitable businesses that raise the standard of living, but most of the oligarchs with access to the huge flood of resource dollars use it to buy respectability in Europe and the U.S.
How do you feel when you see images and read stories about Russian citizens protesting Putin and his policies?
I hope it continues. Putin can’t tolerate widespread middle class dissent. He will crush the Internet if that proves to be an organizing tool. There are reports that Putin plans to create a National Guard of 300-400,000 troops answerable directly to him. He has also moved the former head of emergency response into the governorship of Moscow. Not good signs.
What kinds of legacies still exist from the days of the Cold War and the U.S./ U.S.S.R. rivalry?
As long the U.S. is a global power, there will always be issues and rivalries. At some point, the overseas Russian communities will play a seminal role in changing the place. As we learned in the civil rights movement, you can never break a police state from the inside alone. Overseas Russians will at some point take on the challenge of bringing Russia into the 21st century.
If you could be in Moscow next week what would a day in your life look like?
I have partners there and there are always interesting projects to consider. Business meetings are pretty much like here, as long as you stay away from government toadies. There are great restaurants now — when I went to Moscow for Citibank in 1987, there was only one privately owned restaurant in the whole city. Now there are thousands.
You’ve known New York bankers and Moscow bankers? Are bankers more or less the same here and there?
Bankers are people — some are good guys, some are rotten. During the 1990’s, there was much more gangster-type banking in Moscow with automatic weapons at the doors. Today, the biggest growth area is consumer finance — home mortgages, credit cards. There is still a very stunted corporate lending market, because companies are very opaque and lending is politicized.
What is it that links the Steve Halliwell of SDS days with the Steve Halliwell who has invested money in the Soviet Union and Russia? Are you the same person?
The main link is Anne, my partner and love of 44 years. We came to SDS from very different backgrounds and personal agendas, but somehow it has worked. She and I have evolved in our views over the years, as have our former comrades, but at the core we’re still the same people who fell in love inside the movement. It’s been and continues to be a fascinating journey.
[Jonah Raskin is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. A former Yippie, he is a a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]